Forgotten Laughter

Combestone Tor just up the hill from the fictitious house called Foxcombe.

Combestone Tor just up the hill from the fictitious house called Foxcombe.

There are one or two old farmsteads on the moor where a long house and some barns are grouped around a courtyard. One such came up for sale when we were looking to buy on or near Dartmoor. We both fell in love with it but, as so often happens, it was just outside our budget and we lost out to someone with more cash available. However, it stuck in Marcia’s mind and, years later, it became the model for Foxhole, Brigid’s home.

It was one of those times when it seemed sensible to draw a plan of the house that Marcia envisaged. The courtyard is rectangular with the long sides running north to south. The southern side is bounded by a low wall which makes the courtyard a warm and sunny place – when the sun is shining and the moor is not shrouded in mist and low cloud. To the east is the house itself – a typical Devon long house where each room opens into the next. A barn occupies the north side. In part it has been converted to provide additional accommodation; the remainder is open fronted and used as garaging. To the west are two more barns – the track into the courtyard runs between them. They have been turned into holiday cottages and the walls facing the courtyard are blank: Brigid did not want her privacy invaded by her guests more than was necessary.

With the plan and the orientation of the house in our minds, we set out to find it. To start with we thought it would be in that part of the moor that lies to the north of the road from Dartmeet to Ashburton and over towards Widecombe-in-the-Moor but, as so often happens, we started in the wrong place. The right place turned out to be on the road between Hexworthy and Holne, very near to Saddle Bridge which crosses the O Brook as it tumbles down to join the West Dart at Week Ford. Foxhole is near that confluence, on the Hexworthy side of the O Brook with Combestone Tor high above on the opposite side.

Oddly, Marcia began to realise that the first person to be seeking her attention did not live at Foxhole but was a visitor – a visitor first glimpsed in a train travelling from London to Totnes.

As a naval wife, Marcia was aware of a number of times when a tragedy was made infinitely harder to bear because a married couple could not communicate at a critical moment. When one of the submarines carrying inter-continental missiles (a ‘bomber’) puts to sea, its whereabouts must remain unknown to the world and there is no possibility of any member of the crew being returned home no matter what. Since telling someone that there has been a crisis at home can do no good and might cause serious problems on board, even the gravest of news awaits the submarines return to its home port. This book explores such an event through the eyes of that visitor.

Meanwhile, Brigid was having problems of her own – with her mother (who had deserted her and her father when she was a girl) and with her half sister. We knew exactly where her mother lived; Frummie (a cross between her name – Freda – and mummie) was living in one of the holiday lets. She had fallen on hard times but was paying Brigid rent – or, to be more exact, the local authority was paying the rent. As you can imagine, there were many tensions in the relationship with Brigid fighting her resentment at being deserted when a youngster and Frummie hating her lost independence. At this stage, though, we were more interested in finding where Jemima, Brigid’s half-sister, was living.

The only clue we had was it was by the sea – probably. Marcia felt it had to be reasonably close to Foxhole so we actually started looking at Dartmouth and worked gently west. Turning left at Carehouse Cross took us back to Second Time Around country but instead of dropping down to the west of Start Point we cut down to South Pool and followed the water (as closely as possible) to Portlemouth. It was late in the autumn at this time and so we drove down to the beach which was virtually deserted. Marcia pottered around for a while and suddenly pointed across the mouth of the estuary to Salcombe.

She lives over there,’ she said.

Now, from Portlemouth to Salcombe by water is about half a mile but by road it must be fourteen miles – most of it winding lanes. As we drove we discussed the implication of putting someone in Salcombe.

I want her to be beside the water but she can’t live on one of the cottages that people already occupy.’ This had become a golden rule: Marcia did not want any reader hammering on someone’s door and asking whether this was where so-and-so lived. However, in this case it made life rather difficult.

We parked up near Batson and wandered down Island Street and then along the water’s edge until we were standing by the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution). I was – and am still – a member of the RNLI: I joined when I was an Auxiliary Coastguard based at Hope Cove and Salcombe was part of that station’s guard. Suddenly I had a brilliant idea. If we asked nicely, would the RNLI agree to let us turn the crew’s rest room (on the first floor above the lifeboat house) into a flat for Jemima? The answer came back a few weeks later. ‘Yes, but please give us a suitable acknowledgement.’ This was done and appears in all copies of this book including those published in the US (under the name A Summer in the Country) and those translated into other languages. As a further thank you, click here for the RNLI website.

Gradually the shape of the book was falling into place and Marcia started writing.

Brigid’s husband began to emerge from the twilight. Humphrey was a naval officer whose mother had died just as he first entered the service. At that time his father, an engineer, had been working in Sweden for a few years and, much to his son’s horror, married a Swedish woman shortly after the death of his wife. Humphrey, like Brigid, felt betrayed.

Shortly after Louise (the visitor from London) arrived for her annual holiday at Foxhole, Humphrey was posted to the USA for a six month tour. To Brigid’s horror, his father, Alexander, rings to ask whether he may come and stay for a few weeks. He has lost his second wife and has sold up in Sweden but intends to settle in the north of England. However, he cannot move in for a few weeks and wondered whether he could stay at Foxhole. Brigid is in a quandary: she knows Humphrey’s views on his father and hates the thought of her privacy being compromised but she has provided shelter for her mother – how could she refuse?

It was not until some months later that she suddenly realised that Louise was facing a crisis – a crisis that she would survive thanks to the intervention of Thea and, especially, Thea’s daughter Hermione (you will remember that Thea was expecting another child at the end of Thea’s Parrot). That crisis would mean Louise would have to find a temporary home when her time in the holiday let expired. Louise would not wish to return to London – but if she did not she would have no income.

It was Jemima who solved the problem. She earned a living looking after holiday lets for owners who lived ‘up country’. One such was about to retire and wanted her cottage in East Prawle redecorated before she moved into it. She was only too happy to allow Louise to live in it for a few months in return for having the cottage thoroughly cleaned and repainted.

Louise was not the only one to face a crisis: one of Brigid’s old school friends runs a sailing school with her husband. The husband has decided to leave and the business is in deep trouble. Brigid’s problem is that she stood as guarantor when her friend took a bank loan and the bank is now asking her to stand by her guarantee. To make matters worse, she has not told Humphrey.

Next job was to find where this sailing school was situated. Clearly this had to be on the coast and Cornwall beckoned. Off we set to look into the various possible harbours. In the end, we found a suitable spot on the banks of the River Fal. Actually, it really didn’t matter since, in the end, the school was never on the page. I am reminded of a comment by Joanna Trollope to the effect that one should carry out as much research as possible – and use as little as possible. Very wise.

For some notes and photographs describing Forgotten Laughter country the link is FL Country.